Haley Lu Richardson and Kogonada Are Cinema Soulmates

The gorgeous sci-fi film 'After Yang' is the latest moving collaboration between the actor and director.

after yang haley lu kogonada
Haley Lu and Kogonada | Kate Green/Getty Images
Haley Lu and Kogonada | Kate Green/Getty Images

In After Yang, director Kogonada's gorgeous sci-fi film in theaters and on Showtime March 4, the audience is first introduced to Haley Lu Richardson's character Ada in silent snippets of memory from the robot who loves her. Colin Farrell's Jake, who purchased the technosapien Yang (Justin H. Min), is delving into the bits of the broken companion's life he recorded in three-second increments in order to fix him, and finds footage of Ada, glancing over at Yang, singing at a concert, generally existing. "I feel like throughout those moments, you see her notice this person looking at her," Richardson says. "She feels seen."

Ada enters the story midway through After Yang. Jake has been combing his unnamed quasi-dystopian city trying to find a way to restore Yang, acquired as a big brother to his adopted daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) in order to connect her to her Chinese heritage. His journey leads him inside the equivalent of Yang's brain, where he discovers the robot's connection to Ada, a girl who herself is a clone. This is the second film Richardson has made with the director, after his 2017 feature debut Columbus, and their collaboration is proving to be one of the most exciting in cinema today. "I really feel like Kogonada has seen me. Oh no," Richardson says over Zoom as she starts to tear up, apologizing for her display of emotion. "I feel like Kogonada has seen me in a way creatively that no one else has and... Shit... I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. But it just is really cool. It feels really good and it makes me feel safe."

Richardson starts to cry multiple times over the course of our joint interview with her and Kogonada, simply because she is so moved by their relationship. She explains that she has told Kogonada she loves him, and while he just responded "uh huh," she doesn't need him to say it back to her. She only needs him to know how much he means to her. "She is very special and, and really has become a close friend," Kogonada says. "She has an old soul about her. I think at one point she told me, 'I feel like I'm your mom as well.' It's like she wants to be my best friend and my mom and a number of things."

Though Richardson is an exposed nerve and Kogonada is more reserved, it is evident these two are in sync from the moment they log on: They both are holding their cats on their laps as we start to chat. He makes immaculately composed movies about the longing for connection; she embodies the humanity he's exploring—even when she's not actually playing a human.

Kogonada, the pseudonym for the South Korean filmmaker, first encountered Richardson in the little-seen indie The Young Kieslowski before she started to break out in films like The Edge of Seventeen and Split. The video essayist, known for his works on Hitchcock and Ozu, immediately thought Richardson would be perfect for Columbus' Casey, a recent high school graduate infatuated with the architecture of her hometown, Columbus, Ohio, but trapped in limbo taking care of her troubled mother. Wanting to see what else she had done, he and his wife put on an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit that she was in. Kogonada didn't even have her audition after that. "I literally cannot believe that I got one of the greatest gifts of my life because of an episode of Law & Order," Richardson says.

Justin H. Min and Haley Lu Richardson in 'After Yang.' | A24

When Kogonada started adapting After Yang from a short story by Alexander Weinstein, he didn't start writing the part of Ada for Richardson, but as the character became more fleshed out, it was clear that she was really the only person to cast. "It's sort of incredible to see Haley transform on screen because she is vivacious and has a ton of charisma and energy and youthfulness. Then you call action and she just becomes a mystery," he says. 

Kogonada's screenplay doesn't explain how clones came to exist in this world, or why some people, including Jake, are prejudiced against them, but you can see that tension in Richardson's performance. The lack of exposition is the point. "​​I'm very interested in the things that become very invisible to us," he says. "I think when I was younger, I thought that life changing truth was somewhere out there. You'd have to climb a mountain and talk to a guru and it was going to be that kind of revelation. As I've gotten older, it just feels like, Oh, it's all around. I'm just not paying attention to it. I can look at myself in the mirror and see that I'm aging and think, There's truth there."

Before I can ask another question, Richardson jumps in, effusive. "I just love this," she says. "It's so cool because I feel so alive. I feel like we're talking about things that are like life and it's so cool. That's how I feel when I talk with Kogonada. That's how I feel making movies with Kogonada. That's how I feel doing interviews about Kogonada's movies. It's just so cool because this stuff is the truth. That is so meaningful. Just simply being aware."

In the two years since making After Yang, Richardson says she's been thinking about the concept of soulmates. Yang and Ada might not technically have "souls," whatever those are, but they are soulmates. "I don't know if clones have souls; I don't know how that would work," Richardson says. "He's a robot, so he wouldn't have a soul, but there's a form of existence and experiencing life and having these experiences. They have this soulmate connection that's brought them back to one another." The same feels true of Richardson and Kogonada. Not that they don't have souls—of course they do—but that they are platonic soulmates in a way, using each others skills to try to answer the big questions forever dogging this planet.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.